The well-educated son of a high-ranking official, born in Nu-Kua, Capital of Tsao-Chun, .07.09.03, the Year of the Water Rooster.
The punctilious young man closed the door to Master’s home and asked Shentu and Yulu, fully armored with swords in hand, to watch over the house. Should some ghost cross the threshold, he besseched them to bind it with their reed ropes and throw them to their tigers deep in the shadowy netherworld. He thanked the guardians carved from peach wood for protecting him for the past three years and said goodbye.
Three years, three long years of study. Over. No farewell. No embrace. Master told him he was ready, told him where he needed to go. Then, he was gone.
Ou-yang Hsiu once said readily understandable reasons underlie all things and even the sages would refuse comment on that which betrayed common sense. One thing for sure, Jen witnessed numerous strange things in the past; this took the proverbial moon cake. Heeding the old poet-statesman’s advice, he scanned the bookcases of his mind and shoved the memory behind those old tractates written on bamboo strips on the lowest shelf of the case in the darkest corner. There it would gather dust and be forgotten.
“You ready Jen?”
He adjusted the bag on his back, gave one last look to Shentu and Yulu, and turned. He’d met Sherme outside Master’s door, but his wet eyes blurred the man’s face. Now clear, he could examine his guide, the man Master said would take him to the end of the Silk Road. They’d walked from Master’s room to Jen’s through the garden; his head down, eyes on the wooden walkway, Jen, in listening to him, prefigured a general dislike for the man. Now looking at him, his dislike turned to distaste.
Sherme had commented on Master’s garden and wondered as to why the lack of chrysanthemums and peonies. “I thought Master loved peonies,” he’d said.
Jen explained how, when the Empress Dowager sent Su Tung-Po, “or as I like to call him Uncle Su,” away years ago, Master replanted the garden with bamboo and plum because, “as Uncle Su wrote, bamboo and plum together represent friendship through life.”
Sherme had asked who this Su Tung-Po was; that was when Jen decided he did not like the stupid egg.
And when he looked upon the big-headed fly, staff in hand, his small mouth puckered with pungent distaste.
First off, Sherme, his skin the color of alloyed copper dross, wore not a robe, but a tattered patchwork cloak and a short conical green hat. Second, he wore trousers, holes in the knees no less, and a plain white shirt. Perhaps he dressed as such to take attention off his face.
Someone lacking Jen’s proclivity toward attending to particulars might not notice anything amiss. Jen noticed the details. One thing for certain, it would have been better were Sherme’s eyes more disproportionate and more askew than they were. After all, Sherme could then claim congenital deformity. But such was not the case, for he was not deformed, just anomalous. His face a face without a framework: his pinched left eye, just a little smaller than the ovoid right, hung just a little lower and rested in line with the bridge of his foreshortened nose; his lower lip was thicker than the top; the left corner of his slightly diagonal mouth inclined toward the general lack of a jaw bone. To top it off, a cuneate patch of hair, which would point straight down on any regularly shaped human being, pointed at Sherme’ left knee. If any symmetry balanced his head, you could find it in the crude, yet equal, beveling to his chin and brow. Last but not least, and to injury to an already cruel joke, his elliptical smile revealed perfectly straight white teeth.
“Ready.” Jen stepped to his right.
“Oh, I was hoping to go this way. Besides—”
“The Imperial Avenue is that way.” As he packed, Jen had drawn out the route in his mind and counted a mere four turns: three to get out of the city and one right once they reached the Silk Road. A left, a right, a left, and a right. Like one foot in front of the other. Of course, that last one was a long step, but it required four turns nonetheless.
“I know, I know. It is pretty crazy out there. Are things always this crazy here?”
Jen forgot the day’s occasion. People were preparing for the Double Ninth celebration, a mere six days away, when everyone in the city would venture out to picnic, climb a mountain. The markets would be busy with people buying their chrysanthemum tea and wine, their rice cakes. He slumped his shoulders: Jen enjoyed the Double Ninth celebration when everyone in the city with their snow-covered cinnabar, goose-quill, purple tiger whisker, and heavenly maid chrysanthemums prayed for happiness and good fortune.
The Double Ninth— the same day when over three hundred years ago, Li Po, an exile amongst smiling yellow blossoms, watched his wine cup tumble in the wind atop Dragon Mountain. The very same day T’ao Ch’ien spent idly at home over six hundred years ago, his wine jar empty, his cup dusty. The day he, alone, sat overwhelmed in memory of life short.
“I came into town through the New Fenqiu Gate, down Horse Guild Avenue and I must say—” He hop-stepped and ambled east down Paichia Alley backward, raising his voice as he continued. “—if the rest of the city is like it, I can’t pass up this chance. Know what I mean? I’ve only been here once and it seems like lifetimes ago. I don’t know how many lifetimes until I make it back. It feels like a celebration in the air. Is there? A celebration?” He stopped.
“In six days.”
“Well, come on then. If anything, it looks as if you need some cheering up.” He twirled his staff.
“Fine. Where do you want to go?”
“This way of course.”
Jen caught up with Sherme, sure not to look him too long in the face, passed Old Shen’s large household, and paused where the alley opened to a fermenting Horse Guild Avenue.
Horse Guild Avenue: where lamp fires illuminated even the darkest nights, where street poets lightened even the blackest of moods, and painted girls tried to lighten a man’s pockets as well as his load. Musicians from the House of Duan, home to Nu-Kua’s finest shi feng meat cubes, competed with those in the House of Li the Fourth, also home to Nu-Kua’s finest shi feng meat cubes.
Tea wards and wine shops, taverns and theaters. One alongside the other.
Horse Guild Avenue: where official and commoner mingled shoulder to shoulder, where imperial fragrance swept the roads, and tattooed grunts pulled sing-song girls atop horses, their brothel-rats behind. Where by the hundreds men struggled to bear the weight of their two-wheeled carts weaving their customers through the crowded streets and women in their bull-carts, their screens open, directed their attendants toward the finest markets. Where orioles twittered in the elm- and willow-lined streets and swallows danced in the chrysanthemum perfumed air.
Two boys kicked a ball into a street-side kiosk and ran away giggling. Gamblin’ men shouldered their previous night’s winnings on bamboo poles. A storyteller over here, two jugglers and an acrobat over there; a man exhibiting wild animals in between. Peddlers peddling pets, toys, horoscopes and sugarcane juice, flowers and fruits molded from soya bean paste.
Horse Guild Avenue: where one need not walk fifty paces to find some yen fulfilled.
Five young women, their faces painted white, their magnificent robes trailing long behind, sang, and, as they walked past Jen and Sherme, giggled.
“What? What is it?”
Jen nodded to the five young women, now gathered around a jewelry kiosk.
“Them? What about them? Do you know them?”
“No…Their robes are purple. They’re holding blue-green parasols. Their hats are higher than four inches, wider than a foot. Not to mention that one’s comb exceeds four inches and is made of white horn.”
“Is that a problem or something?”
“Of course it is.”
Sherme repeated the response with the same monotone and isochronal rate of speech.
“They are not supposed to.”
“Not supposed to?”
“Purple is supposed to be reserved for an official. Same with the white horn. See that peddler over there? In the green? He is certainly no official either.”
“So what? People can wear what they want.”
“Only because the court finally allowed it. Only after people, thinking they can match shoulders with the officials, started breaking the rules. They should all be in black and white, plain and simple.”
“It’s just clothes Jen.”
His head snapped back and Jen inclined his head to look Sherme square in the eyes. “It is not just clothes. First, you need to remember where you stand. You are in the capital, Heaven on Earth and, for your information, these are not things to be trifled with. Second, like Ssu-ma Kuang said, when people do not know who they are and do not know where they stand, disorder ensues. You are seeing the result.” He could expatiate of course, but decided, based on aberration on Sherme’s face, to remain silent rather than explain how (third) the greatest empire in the history of Tsao-Chun teetered on the brink of despair because the reprobate commoners, in disregarding the long established order, threw Heaven’s decree to the north wind.
Sherme stood, his mouth agape.
Then again, he could not lay the blame on them, Jen decided, watching them as they rampaged by: the officials played their part too. Since, like Ssu-ma Kuang said, the high officials involved themselves in the affairs of the lower officials and vice versa. When the officials forget their place, disorder ensues and when disorder reigns in the government, it trickles down and what does one have? The commoners pretending to be officials. A peccant city and a court full of small men.
Jen shook his shaved head.
Masses of small men, pouring in and out of every building like ants scrambling to repair a disturbed nest. But unlike ants who knew exactly what to do in order to reestablish order, these formic multitudes did nothing to repair the damage. A city full of derivatives lacking virtue reduced to little more than following blind compulsions, less and less of the innominates took the time and the effort and the commitment necessary to cultivate themselves. A city full of swarming cicadas just chirp, chirp, chirping away going about their own blind, confused, troubled, and distracted ways without a concern for the consequences of their actions let alone social harmony. Living life with eyes closed, they simply conformed to whatever might be in style at the moment, always ready to move on to the next, always trying to keep up with the Wangses.
“And who are you? You’re dressed in black.”
“Simply because Master allowed me to wear only black or white.” He straightened his robe. “My father, I will have you know, is the Vice Minister of the Ministry of Personnel.”
“Is that a big deal or something?”
“Only if you consider being in charge of recommending and writing up every appointment, promotion, and demotion in the Empire a big deal.”
“I guess that would be a yes then.”
“One day this nonsense will change and the empire will be fixed.”
“Oh yeah? And when will that be?”
“When I stand behind the emperor himself as Chancellor.”